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Gold Kit Kat shows cocoa resilience amid commodities slump

Despite a severe rout in the prices of most commodities, cocoa prices have rallied 13 percent this year, highlighting the popularity of chocolate in a market that is moving upscale.

Nowhere in Asia is this more pronounced than in Japan, where gift-giving is an essential part of the country's culture.

There, food giant Nestle SA is capitalizing on year-end festivities with a special edition of its popular Kit Kat bar made of edible gold leaves.

Handcrafted by an artisan in Ishikawa Prefecture in central Japan, just 500 of these dark chocolate bars will go on sale on December 29 for $16 each ahead of the New Year, an important holiday in Japan.

Nestle Japan's executive manager Alex Villela told CNBC that the inspiration for the product came from an ancient tradition of eating sweets and liquor containing gold on special occasions for good luck.

"New Year's eve in Japan is the time when families can finally have a break from hard work, get together...and also think of their best wishes for the coming year...Enjoying a very special Kit Kat made with gold is like wishing to have very good fortune for the next year," he said.

Japan is Asia's largest consumer of chocolates, accounting for almost a quarter of the region's $14 billion in retail sales, while Nestle is one of the world's top three chocolate makers, alongside Mars Inc. and Mondelez International.

Japan's appetite for premium chocolate highlights that cocoa remains an in-demand commodity. According to data from Deutsche Bank, cocoa prices are now 43 percent higher than their 2000-2014 average.

In contrast, crude oil prices—a traditional global economic indicator—have tanked about 40 percent this year.

Cocoa's rise is primarily due to a supply deficit, with a drought in the major cocoa-producing countries in Africa and Asia affecting output.

The International Cocoa Organization is predicting a shortfall of 100,000 tons of cocoa for the 2015/2016 season crop

Still, with consumers increasingly concerned about health, growth in the chocolate confectionery market has cooled in recent years, with consumption per capita down by 1 percent from 2014, noted Euromonitor's food analyst Jack Skelly.

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Challenges facing the $100 billion industry – which thrives on impulse buying – include fewer spur-of the-moment purchases due to the demise of supermarket checkout counters and the rise of online shopping.

"These checkouts have typically been the preserve of impulse products…which rely on ease of access, low prices and high visibility to tempt customers into purchasing. Subsequently, chocolate confectionery's in-store profile has now changed, with customers, to an extent, planning their visits to a confectionery aisle," added Skelly.

The effects of the change in buying patterns, however, is offset by growth in value, as products move upmarket.

Manufacturers are countering the decline in consumption due to health concerns through packing innovations, such as sharing bags and the use of premium ingredients, including higher percentage, responsibly-sourced or better quality cocoa to cater to affluent customers eating less chocolate in Western Europe and North America.

More expensive dark chocolate, for instance, generally requires more cocoa beans per ounce to make than milk chocolate, keeping cocoa usage elevated even if consumption per capita falls.

Indeed, premium brands such as Lindor from Lindt and Cadbury's Green & Black's are posting annual sales growth, said Euromonitor's Skelly.

"Consumers are putting more thought into their chocolate confectionery purchases, and are willing to spend more on considered buys," he said.

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